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“What We’ve Pulled Off… So Far” Film Review – Film Critics Program #8

What We’ve Pulled Off… So Far

2021 | Dir. Kevin Nikkel | 80 minutes
Reviewed by Cierra Bettens

Kevin Nikkel’s What We’ve Pulled Off…So Far chronicles just over a century of Winnipeg’s film history in dreamy, bite-sized archival bits. 

Narrated by Nikkel himself, the documentary begins with the pessimism of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. It affirms the quintessential paradox of Winnipeg; the incessant desire to escape or to be somewhere else, contrasted with the perpetual, self-imposed inability to leave. 

Winnipeg has long acted as a replica of other cities; to quote Nikkel, “a time traveler’s portal magically transforms Winnipeg into other places, fulfilling the latent desire to be somewhere else.” Our beloved Exchange District has been transformed into Chicago, Toronto, and a myriad of other North American cities. Indeed, as the film notes, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) once cut out all the references to Winnipeg in the French version of Roman Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz’s: Street-Railway Switchman, reconstructing it into a faux Ottawa without Kroitor’s knowledge. 

Themes of alienation and displacement are highlighted throughout the film—themes felt both in Winnipeg’s cinematic legacy and in the everyday lives of its residents. The city is always aching to be something more, yet simultaneously takes pride in not responding to anyone or anything. And yet, simply watching the film bombards you with the sheer range of the city’s film history.  

Funding cuts, uncertainty, and the general challenges of filmmaking have encouraged local creators to go beyond traditional bounds; while others turned to high definition cameras, Winnipeggers returned to analogue techniques, merging the old with the new. Meagre budgets led to unprecedented discoveries through what Nikkel describes as the lifeblood of the local film scene: “persistence, resistance, and experimentation”. Everyone shares the collective burden of near-impossible budgets, tedious hours, and the need to overcome the irrational insecurity of being from here. 

At the same time, What We’ve Pulled Off…So Far acts as a tribute to the individuals and organizations that have fostered resilience in Winnipeg’s film scene. Staples like the Winnipeg Film Group, Plug-In and the National Film Board are highlighted as the backbone of the city’s thriving scene. They’ve carried filmmakers through the social realism of the 70s, the prairie postmodernism of the 90s, and the Indigenous renaissance of today. Still, mythologizing Winnipeg has always slouched towards the DIY side—a testament to an unwillingness to give up or give in. 

When Winnipeg becomes fed up with trying to be somewhere or something else, something miraculous happens. When the desperate ache to be more like Toronto or Vancouver vanishes, one relishes in Winnipeg’s thriving art collectives, wonderfully dingy music venues, and the fact that no one is more than two degrees of separation from one another. At the heart of our cinematic landscape are films that are so unapologetically Winnipeg that the viewer begins to feel a sense of pride in our underloved prairie city. 

“No one cares what we’re doing, so we might as well just do whatever we want,” Rhayne Vermette says in a clip from Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group

Perhaps that’s always been what Winnipeg has done best; in accepting our status as the underdog, we’ve pulled off more than we could ever imagine. 

What We’ve Pulled Off So Far reminds us that everything we need is right here.

What We’ve Pulled Off… So Far is featured in GFF’s Manitoba Film Series and can be viewed on GIFF Online NOW till the end of the Festival on July 25.